In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Stomachaches -- a sign of gluttony

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thanks for the well-wishes -- after being completely knocked out for two days, I'm feeling much better, and we had a terrific celebratory weekend for Eleanor.  (We got your birthday box tonight, and have only opened part of it -- what a treasure trove!)

Coming off of this stomach bug, and watching family and friends fall prey to it and its cousins in the last couple of weeks, I'm surprised that I can't think of any good stomach flu picture books either.  It's such a common childhood ailment.  Maybe illustrators think it's too gross?  Colds and flus provide picture-friendly runny sore noses, but no one wants to draw their favorite bunny hunched over the toilet or reaching for a bucket over the side of the bed?

The only stomachache books that come to mind are about overeating: stomachache as a punishment for gluttony.  There's Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, who overeats (at a fairground?) on Saturday, has a terrible stomachache, then eats a "nice green leaf" on Sunday (repent, caterpillar!) and feels much better.  Only then does he get to be a butterfly.

Then there's this wonderful weird old book I had as a kid (out of print now, of course): Mother Mother I Feel Sick Send for the Doctor Quick Quick Quick.
It's the brainchild of Remy Charlip (of Fortunately and Paper Bag Players fame) and Burton Supree, and you can get a sense of its pleasing wackiness from the title.

It's the story of a fat little boy who has a bad stomachache.  His mother races him to the doctor, who throws him under a sheet and begins to pull all kinds of things out of him -- apparently, this boy has eaten everything in the house, from food to furniture to a birdcage with a live bird in it.

The drawings are all done in silhouette, and the book provides instructions for how to act it out as a shadow play, which I remember thinking was a cool idea, though I don't think we ever actually did it.  Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves has a nice entry on it, with more of the evocative silhouette drawings.

So again, not really sickness, just compulsive overeating.  But perhaps a book that would make a sick kid feel better anyhow?

Love, Annie

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Wheezles and sneezles

Dear Annie,

A dad asked the other day for a picture book to read to a sick child about being sick.  Specifically, she had a stomach flu and he wanted a book about tummy aches.  As you know, I love odd requests that force me to rummage through infrequently visited corners of my brain, but the tummy ache brought me up short on this one.

The subject of illness in books seems appropriate this weekend, though, because (as regular readers may have guessed) you've been both sick and hosting Eleanor's birthday festivities.  I hope you're feeling better.  I have no stomach ailment books to offer, but given the season, here's a sampling of colds.  The main take-away in cold books is that they're eased by friendship -- and they're contagious.

Bear was sick, very very sick.
His eyes were red.  His snout was red.
His throat was sore and gruffly.
In fact, Bear was quite sure no one
had ever been as sick as he.

So starts  
The Sniffles for Bear
by Bonnie Becker -- the latest in her quite good Mouse and Bear books.  Mouse is aggressively cheerful and friendly; Bear is glum and stand-offish.  In this one, Bear dramatizes his cold into being reason to write up a will, and Mouse's glee at being in line to inherit roller skates hastens the process of Bear's recovery.  Mouse then ends up with the cold.

Pigs Make Me Sneeze!
our pal Gerald of the Elephant and Piggie series lets loose a series of sneezes that send pig flying in various directions (she eventually appears on-page with a helmet).  He surmises that he must be allergic to pigs and bids her a sneezy sad farewell.  A feline doctor eventually sets him straight, and he galumphs back to his pal: "Piggie! Piggie! Great news! I HAVE A COLD!"  Which, of course, Piggie has already caught.

We've talked about
A Sick Day for Amos McGee
by Philip Stead when it won the Caldecott Medal last year.  It's the lovely and gentle story of a zookeeper's animals taking the bus to come see him when he's home sick with a cold. They all understand they have to let him take naps, and they play gently with him.
"I'm too tired to run races today," said Amos to the tortoise.  "Let's play hide-and-seek instead."  
The tortoise hid inside his shell.
Amos hid beneath the covers.
The animals all spend the night, and there's a plan for all to head back to the zoo in the morning.

No list of friendship through adversity could be complete without good old Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel.  An excerpt from
Frog and Toad are Friends
One day in summer Frog was not feeling well.
Toad said, "Frog, you are looking quite green."
"But I always look green," said Frog.  "I am a frog."
"Today you look very green even for a frog," said Toad.
"Get into my bed and rest."
So I hope you've been resting up, dear Annie, and are getting better soon.



Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beyond bread and jam

Dear Annie,

Well, the Newbery, Caldecott and a lot of other awards were announced by the American Library Association on Monday, and as usual, I was miles off predicting any of them. 
Dead End in Norvelt
by Jack Gantos won the Newbery for best children's literature.  I read half of it back when it was a mere sample copy -- am re-reading now.  Gantos is a really good writer.  I would have been happier if Jefferson's Sons or Okay for Now had won, but this one is an understandable choice.  I was quick on the trigger on ordering, though, and now have two shelves at the store full of almost all the winners and honor books.  Whew.

The categories of ALA awards have proliferated in recent years, one of the more interesting being the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for books for beginning readers.  In the seven years they've been awarding it, Mo Willems has won two awards and two honors for Elephant and Piggie books.  They're definitely deserving, but happily this year the award went to a book that's definitely a change of pace:
Tales for Very Picky Eaters
by Josh Schneider.
"I can't eat broccoli," said James.  "It's disgusting."
  "Maybe there's something else you can eat," suggested James's father.
  "What else is there?" asked James.
  "Well, we have dirt.  We have the finest dirt available at this time of the year, imported from the best dirt ranches in the country.
  "This dirt has been walked on by the most skilled chefs wearing the finest French boots.  
  "It has been mixed by specially trained earthworms, and it is served on your very own floor."
  "Ugh," said James.
Dad goes on to offer pre-chewed chewing gum and a sweaty sock worn by a runner "who was fed nothing but apples and cinnamon for three months before running a marathon in this very sock."  The broccoli wins. 

When James rejects mushroom lasagna, his father tells him about the hard-working troll in the basement hired especially to make mushroom lasagna.  The troll is green with fangs and wears an apron saying "Kiss the Cook." James' ubiquitous basset hound quietly sniffs the heat vent coming up from the basement.

The book has five short chapters -- my favorite is The Tale of the Lumpy Oatmeal, rejected for its lumpiness.  The oatmeal, Dad explains, regenerates every day, so that if one doesn't eat it, it gets bigger and bigger and starts eating the desserts around the house.  And because Growing Oatmeal, which now looks like The Blob, isn't a picky eater, he could spell trouble for James's dog.  The dog looks pathetically at James.  He asks for -- and gets -- another bowl of oatmeal "with fewer lumps."

The Tales are (mostly) wacky and charming with good illustrations.  The one on Repulsive Milk is a bit too preachy (builds strong bones).  The last chapter, on Slimy Eggs, turns the tables a bit and has a satisfying ending.  I know, I know: you're thinking, "Slimy eggs!  We've been there before!"  A year and a half ago you wrote about Eleanor's take-away message from Bread and Jam for Frances (the Ur-picky eater book) being to demand bread and jam all the time.  And Frances' b&j habit started with her facing down a plate of slimy eggs.  So I don't know if you want to introduce this one to your home, but its flights of fancy are definitely a hoot.



Monday, January 23, 2012

Storytelling and dragons

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I love Atinuke -- we read Anna Hibiscus' Song on repeat this weekend -- and look forward to her new series.  The video makes me think about storytellers we used to see perform when I was a kid: dramatic, hold the room in the palm of your hand performers who could stretch a story out in the best possible way.

Tonight I'm returning to dragons in the company of a storyteller: Shutta Crum, the author of Thomas and the Dragon Queen.  I mentioned this book briefly post-Christmas: a gift for Eleanor from my father-in-law, who somehow found a book containing both a Princess Eleanor and a baby sister named Isabel.  Perfection!

Eleanor adored Thomas -- we sped through the chapters, which are nice and short, punctuated with illustrations by Lee Wildish.  There's a lot to like in the book: an appealing hero, an episodic adventure, accurate medieval detail about arms and armor, dragons and other monsters, female characters with the names of the children in my family.  In terms of structure and tone, however, it's an uneven read.

Holly wrote so well last week about adult vs. child expectations of a narrative: as grownups reading to our kids, we want to pick books that are the right level of scary and suspenseful, not too dark just yet, but exciting.  We know that the heroes and heroines of children's books will be okay; we know what to expect.  Or do we?

Thomas and the Dragon Queen does not seem like a dark book.  Early on, you get to know not only small, unprepossessing Thomas, but also his small, unprepossessing friend Jon, who works in the stables, and the king's great horse, Heartwind, and the good old reliable donkey, Bartholomew.  It is love for these animals that introduces Princess Eleanor to the plot: she comes to the stables to feed Heartwind and Bartholomew in secret.  Towards the end, the dragon queen, Bridgoltha, is revealed to be the mother of twelve baby dragons, who has kidnapped Princess Eleanor to be their nursemaid.  All the dragons can talk (one of them in a mildly annoying cutesy way), and things with Bridgoltha are worked out via diplomacy and bargaining rather than violence.  This seems like one kind of book.

And yet.  The story takes place in a kingdom under siege: though it's never fully explained who is attacking and why, all of the able-bodied men of the kingdom are fighting at its borders.  Thomas only becomes a squire, and then a knight, because there aren't many adults around.  The king knights Thomas, then feels guilty about it and follows him in his quest to rescue Princess Eleanor; on the way, both parties fight a giant swamp monster with tentacles and many mouths.  Thomas defeats him, in a cool and complicated plot twist.  When he awakes, he finds out from Jon that when the king's party was attacked, everybody but the king and Jon died.  Including Heartwind.  Reading this aloud to Eleanor, I was taken aback -- what kind of story is this?  But no time to dwell on the deaths: in the next section, Thomas has to get across a body of water to Bridgoltha's island, and there is a several page long episode in which he rescues a baby dolphin from a bunch of floating debris.  A baby dolphin?  After you just killed off Heartwind?  Tonally, it's odd.

When I read in the author bio that Crum is a professional storyteller, among other things, I wondered whether part of what I was responding to in the book was the episodic nature of oral storytelling.  You don't tell a novel -- you tell sections, stories, tales.  Perhaps I should think about Thomas and the Dragon Queen in that light, as a group of linked short stories.  None of this seemed to cause any narrative dissonance for Eleanor.  As a parent, however, I know what to expect from a narrative, and I want to trust the narrator who's leading me and my child through the forest. 

Love, Annie

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Village life

Dear Annie,

Thanks to Holly for her How to Train Your Dragon guest entry.  It's a fun series, and plays into my prejudice that British writers are often just better with language.  Even when they're talking about dragon snot.

Today, though, I'm going in another direction.
On the continent of Africa, you will find my country.  In my country there are many cities, all with skyscrapers, hotels, offices.  There are also many smaller towns, all with tap water and electricity and television.  Then there is my village, where we only talk about such things.
Atinuke, author of the wonderful Anna Hibiscus books (see here, here and here) is introducing us to new territory.  She has said she wrote about Anna Hibiscus because when she moved from Nigeria to England, she met too many people who thought all Africans lived in mud huts in lion-infested jungles.  Anna Hibiscus is a middle class girl in a large, prosperous urban family -- Atinuke wanted to bring the reality of her own African life to children elsewhere.

She's started a new series, The No. 1 Car Spotter.  It's set in a village that makes me think of your brother's Peace Corps time in Mauritania.  Most of the men of the village have gone to cities to find work, leaving mothers, children and grandparents to raise crops and get them to market. The boy narrator's full name is Oluwalase Babatunde Benson, "but everybody calls me No. 1.  The No. 1." The superlative stands for his prowess at spotting and identifying cars:
  Who can help spotting cars when the road runs directly past the village?  It is what we men do.
  Grandfather, sitting under the iroko tree in the center of the village, shouts, "Firebird!"
  Uncle Go-easy, waist-deep in the river, pulling in his nets, shouts, "Peugeot 505!"
  Tuesday and Emergency, clearing the bush for a new field, hear an engine and shout, "Mercedes 914!"
  Coca-Cola and I, high in the palm trees collecting nuts, shout, "Aston Martin DB5!"
(Kind of makes one think of my car-obsessed brother, your Uncle Al, who would be right at home with these guys.)  The stories are about No. 1's little community and how they use the few resources they have  imaginatively.  A junked car is converted into a cattle-drawn wagon when the town's only wooden wagon falls apart.  Wheelbarrows given by the NGO man "to improve life in the village" end up in the city where No. 1's father uses them for a delivery business -- and the earnings from the business bring happy changes to the village. 

Atinuke's language is always so lovely to read -- and her story-telling turns out (not surprisingly) to be wonderfully high-energy.  Here's the beginning of the book, story-teller style:



Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest blogger: Adventure and peril in early chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

It was an unexpected pleasure to read Grandpa's letter on trains.  Made me miss him all over again.  Thank you.

Classes end for the semester on Monday, so although I'll still be knee-deep in grading during finals week, I'll be back to blogging then.  Here's our last guest blogger for this round: my good friend Holly, mom of Eleanor's friend Ian, who has written for us before about outer space and map books:

I’ve just finished The Hunger Games, and it is no great testament to my cleverness to say that from the beginning I had high expectations that the heroine would survive, despite seemingly insurmountable odds to the contrary. However, for Ian, who is four and a half, reading books where a beloved character is in peril usually brings tears and certainty that they will die, despite all our best arguments and assurances. It reminds me of Eleanor worrying that the bad guy would win at the end of the Muppet Movie. How cool to be so new at all this that you really don’t know how it all turns out!

Maybe it sounds a bit cruel that I inflict this kind of suspense on my sensitive boy, but believe me he loves nothing better than a good swordfight. Also, if I have to read one more Beverly Cleary book, I’ll cry.

One of the first chapter books where we drag Ian onward a bit was How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell. The antihero, Hiccup, heir to the Viking Hooligan tribe, and his hapless friend Fishlegs, manage to be in danger of certain death on every page. The following is typical:

“I mean,” continued Fishlegs, “so far today we have narrowly escaped being 1. Torn to pieces by Skullions. 2. Eaten by Cannibal Outcasts. 3. Burned to death on board ship. 4. Drowned at the bottom of the ocean. … And now here we are, trapped in an inaccessible underground cavern facing DEATH BY SLOW STARVATION. … It’s just been a REALLY BAD day.”

Throughout the eight (yes, even the existence of sequels fails to reassure Ian) books they encounter dragons and villians each more [superlative] than the last. I was almost dissuaded from reading them by opening randomly to a page involving a character named SnotFaced Snotlout. There is a bit of gross out going on but the stories are fast paced, the characters flawed and charming and despite the swords, explosions, dragon fire, daring escapes and narrowly averted apocalypses no lives are lost (except one dragon -- I admit we edited that a bit).

The other series with great illustrations, fun characters and constant danger that we sailed through with Ian is The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Twin brothers and their older sister (who is amazingly cool) discover a Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. It opens up a dangerous and exciting world co-existing with our own where goblins, ogres and faeries try to gain control of the powerful book. Carried forward by the beautiful illustrations, we literally read straight through the series in a matter of days, despite one of the main characters being abducted by goblins and hung from a tree, etc. A few goblins do die actually, but I think I skipped that sentence -- kids don’t seem to bothered when bad guys die, but I sort of am. The future of the world is at stake, of course. Luckily, Mallory, the big sister, has a sword and the twins are brave and clever.

And you’ll have to take my word for it, everything turns out ok.

Thank you, Holly!

Love, Annie

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Guest blogger smiling down on us

Dear Annie,

I took Mark's train post to heart and ordered All Aboard ABC for the store. Thanks, Mark!  It sure is an odd mix of grainy stock photos and those hurried train detail shots, some with the little red car that Mark talked about.  Sometimes finding those little oddities and wondering about the photographer with the rented car can give a parent a little something extra when s/he's on the thirtieth reading of "Grade Crossing."

Right around three years old is when a lot of kids get into focused (sometimes obsessive) interests -- and there are lots of books that cater to the big ones.  You Can Name 100 Trucks is one of my favorite titles in that category. Forget about plot, let's just get to the lists.  A lovely combination of 100 train cars, beautiful art, and good writing is Crossing,  this poem by Philip Booth illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.  It's many pages of paintings of a 100-car freight train winding through the countryside.  And yes, you can count them with your kids and sure enough, there are 100.  The link is to Alibris -- the book is out of print, alas.

All this thinking about train writing turned my thoughts to my father, your grandpa, who was of course  a writer.  His professional writing was direct mail: letters that sold mostly books.  In 1974, shortly before he left American Heritage, where he had worked for many years, he wrote a letter selling a history of trains.  I thought I'd invite grandpa's ghost to be a guest blogger, because he sure could conjure up a train:
Dear Reader: 

If you're old enough and lucky enough, you can remember lying in bed as a child and hearing, far off, the whistle of a steam locomotive as it pounded through the night. The wail was hoarse, mournful, inimitable. And once upon a time it was a siren song for any youngster. 

You could imagine the engineer, red bandana round his neck, eyes riveted on the gleaming rails ahead, wind-blown and ruddy in the glow from the open fire door. You envied oh, how you envied the impossibly glamorous travelers in the spruce train behind, eating five-course feasts in the spotless dining car, ice tinkling in their wine buckets. Or snug in their berths behind swaying green curtains in the long Pullmans, each car lettered with its name. "Someday," you told yourself, "Someday..." It was magic. 

Someday, lackaday. Such high-style overland travel is almost gone, as someone has said, with the wind. But as all of us who remember can tell all of us who were a bit too young, railroads were once magic carpets for Americans. The miraculous iron horse changed our modes of life more radically than any mechanical device before or since, from steel plows to airplanes.
The rest of the letter is here.  Dad would get a kick out of knowing two 21st century three year-old boys who care a lot about trains.



Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Blogger: Train books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

As you bite your nails over the Newberys, I'm plugging away at reading and commenting on huge amounts of fiction by my high school writers, some of whom, I swear, are good enough to wind up on your lists someday....

Here's our next guest blogger, my friend and colleague Mark, father of twin 3-year-old boys:

One odd thing about having children is that I find myself looking for echoes of my own personality and taste in my kids. When I was a kid, I read all the time. So I watch to see how much my kids like reading (or being read to – Sam and Ezra are three years old). Recently, I’ve noticed that my boys approach subject in the same way that I did when I first started reading – that is to say, obsessively.

I loved books about war, particularly World War Two. The first book I remember buying at one of those school-based book fairs was about the Battle of Midway. By the time I was eight years old, I’d read every vaguely age-appropriate book on World War Two that I could find, and moved on to some very age-inappropriate ones. Historical fiction about the Battle of the Bulge? Yes, please! Super-dry tomes devoted to cataloguing every single kind of airplane that flew in the war? Sounds great!

I’m sure my parents were a bit put off by my reading obsession with war. They probably looked on their budding Rambo with horror.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of Sam and Ezra’s obsession with trains and train books. Somehow, they’ve become those boys. The ones with every single wooden replica New York City subway train. The ones who know the names of every Thomas train (most especially the ones they don’t have). And we’ve read all of the books about trains available in the borough of Queens.

Because of this, I feel well-positioned to write about a couple of train books we like, as well as making some general comments on the overall state of children’s books about trains. 

I’ve noticed a few different genres of picture books about trains. One follows the standards of most kids’ picture books: whimsical illustrations, a cute storyline, maybe a lightweight moral at the end. Think The Little Engine That Could, or The Little Red Caboose, a Golden Book with intensely overpacked illustrations by Tibor Gergely (there is basically no blank space on any page) [the Gergely version seems to be out of print -- here's the version sold now]. A somewhat more modern example of this is The Polar Express, in which a boy travels on a mysterious train to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. The moral: just keep believing, kids!

There are whimsical storybooks without the tacked-on didactic morals, of course. One I like because it manages to hit most of the sweet spots of three-year-old boy reading habits is Time Train by Paul Fleischman and Claire Ewart. In this book, a group of kids on school field trip somehow find themselves on a train that takes them back in time to frolic with dinosaurs. Trains and dinosaurs both! Who could ask for more?

My boys love their train storybooks, but the ones that they come back to over and over are much more literal. Sam and Ezra prefer books that are more concrete, factual, and in some ways, odd. Let me tell you about two.

The first is Subway by Christoph Niemann. The book is based on this wonderful piece Niemann did for the Times a few years ago in which he takes his boys on “endless subway joy rides…” to satisfy their love of trains. Subway is great both because it is about loving the subway system obsessively – the kids end up crying as they’re dragged off the train after an entire day of riding back and forth – and because it is a mostly accurate guide to the subway system. It looks like a typical storybook, but it is really a hard-core introduction to every subway line in the city. In fact, I think that Sam and Ezra’s favorite page is one on which the F and G trains separate at Bergen street in Brooklyn, only to reunite at Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. My boys love this page because they get to fact-check it. The G no longer runs to Roosevelt Avenue, and they know it, and they love to show off their knowledge by telling the book that it is wrong.

Subway is an easy book to love. It looks great and it tells a story that feels completely familiar to train-obsessed kids. Not all factual train picture books are quite so easy to love. I have a long-suffering affection for a book called All Aboard ABC by Doug Magee and Robert Newman. This book was published in 1990, and it is the kind of weird book that makes me wonder how it actually came to be. Who decided to make this book? Who decided to print it? What were they thinking?

All Aboard ABC uses photographs of trains (many of them Amtrak) and parts of trains to teach the letters of the alphabet. For instance, “H” is accompanied by a picture of a train’s horn and the caption “The engineer sounds the horn as the train nears a grade crossing.” What’s a grade crossing? Well, that’s what’s weird about this book – it is oddly specific. “G” is for “grade crossing,” which appears to be the technical term for “where railroad tracks cross a road.” “Q” might be for quiet, but “R” is for roadbed. “B” isn’t just for bridge, but for “trestle bridge.”

The photography of the book is pretty entertaining, too, in that I often find myself wondering about the circumstances of the photography. Many of the pictures seem to be taken in the same place on the same day (if I had to guess, I’d say that place was Bakersfield, California and that the day was an overcast one). “J” is for “junction,” but it might as well also be for all of the “junk” that weirdly appears in the background of the picture. My favorite photographic detail: there’s a red rental car that in many of the shots, giving the impression that the photographer has rented the car (in, say, Bakersfield), driven around looking for trains to photograph, and jumped out whenever something looked vaguely train-ish. At least, that’s the impression I get when I see that red Corolla, driverless, parked at G’s grade crossing.

The book is ridiculous, but my boys love it. They don’t look at it and see a rush job, in the way I do. They look at it and see a trove of interesting, detailed, never-before-imagined information that they love. Where I think they want a story, they really want to know the difference between a hopper car and a boxcar. In a way, I think the book respects them enough to give them the details, to tell them things that most of us would think are too complicated for children, and Sam and Ezra respond to that. Maybe that’s what I was responding to in all of those books about World War Two: they were about real, concrete things, unlike most books that were available to me. 

Thank you, Mark!

Love, Annie

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Newbery nerves

Dear Annie,

Thanks to Kim for her Llama Llama entry.  I'm fond of the cover of Llama Llama Mad at Mama: if only we could all flatten our ears when we're mad -- so expressive!

There's a rhythm to the year in bookselling: the slow build-up in the fall to the tidal wave of holiday shopping, then coming up for air at the end of December, followed by scrambling to re-order to fill the shelves.  And in the middle of this stage: aack! Newbery nerves!

On January 23 -- a week from tomorrow -- the American Library Association announces its many awards for children's books published during 2011.  The announcements create instantaneous and prolonged demand for the winners of the two big medals: the Newbery for literature and the Caldecott for illustration.  As I mentioned last year at this time, it's the hope of every bookseller that the winners are books which we already have in stock.  No finalists are announced, so there's intense speculation about dozens of books which may or may not be in the running.  This year I've been fascinated by School Library Journal's awards blog, Heavy Medal.

Every year I tell myself I won't get panicky and bring in five or ten books I haven't read and don't know much about because they're on someone's list of what might win.  I confess that I just ordered a few copies of The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman -- a book, author and publisher I've never heard of -- based on this entry in the Heavy Medal blog.  It sounds interesting, and if it does win, its little publisher will take months to get it reprinted.  Ten days from now I'll be kicking myself for having done that.

Over the course of any year, a handful of the many many books I read strike me as special.  I'll think, this is it: here's next year's winner.  And I have yet to guess right.  I was close with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, which seemed like a clear winner.  It won a Newbery honor, and still got a good deal of the attention that it deserved.  So here are my guesses this year:

Jefferson's Sons
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  It's a novel imagining the lives of Thomas Jefferson's slave children.  I wrote about it here.

Okay for Now
by Gary Schmidt has stayed with me since I read it and wrote this back in February.  It's set in 1968: the story of a struggling kid dealing with abuse from his father and his brother.  He finds redemption and growth through the caring actions of several adults in his small town, and with his discovery of the prints of John James Audobon.  One really cares about the people in this book.

And then there's
by Brian Selznick, about which I wrote in May even before I had finished reading it.  It tells parallel stories of two young people -- one in 1927, the other in 1977 -- who run away from home and end up at the Museum of Natural History in New York.  The 1927 girl is deaf: her story is told entirely in pictures, in Selznick's totally absorbing style.  The 1977 boy's story is entirely in words.  At the end their paths intertwine. 

Wonderstruck has been the subject of speculation about its eligibility for the Newbery.  The Medal is for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children," but the rules refer specifically to the text of a book.  So is a book which is told half in pictures and half in words eligible?  Selznick's previous amazing book told in pictures and words, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was the subject of this kind of speculation the year it came out too.  It ended up winning the Caldecott Medal, for best illustration.  We shall see what, if anything, happens with Selznick's work this year.

In the meantime, I'm off to bite my nails and order more books which I probably shouldn't.  But just maybe one will be the right one...



Friday, January 13, 2012

Guest Blogger: Llama Llama

Dear Aunt Debbie,

What awesome art books!  I'm taking notes on subjects to come back to after I'm done with portfolio grading.  In the meantime, our next guest blogger is my friend and colleague Kim.  Over lunch a few weeks ago, she started talking about her son's latest book love:

My nearly two-year old son, Oliver, is obsessed with Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama series.  So much so that his Llama Llama doll, given to him by my mother, has become a regular bed-fellow, rounding out his trifecta of Curious George and the glowing Fisher Price sea horse (which I affectionately call his glow worm, fondly remembering my own childhood doll).

We discovered the Llama Llama series when my mother, who, full-disclosure, works for the publishing house which puts out the books, gave Oliver a copy of Llama Llama Red Pajama.  He took to it right away, riveted by the tale of a young llama, donning red pajamas, tucked into bed and in desperate need of a glass of water.  The old, “mommy I want water” trick!  Mama Llama, clearly relieved that Llama Llama’s bedtime has finally arrived and she has time to take care of a few chores, is downstairs finishing up the dinner dishes while chatting on the phone.   Meanwhile, upstairs in bed, Llama Llama’s anxiety increases as he becomes more and more impatient for mama to bring him his water, finally culminating in a melt-down of epic proportions.  Mama Llama’s frenzied arrival after hearing her son’s panicked screams is expressed in a collage of illustrations which speak for themselves.  Here is where it gets really good; when she discovers that he is perfectly safe and unharmed in bed, rather than coddle little Llama Llama, Mama Llama lets him have it.  She sternly admonishes him: “Baby Llama what a tizzy! Sometimes Mama’s very busy.  Please stop all this llama drama and be patient for your mama.”  Mama Llama is one tough cookie, but she quickly follows this up with a hug and kiss and the reassurance that “Mama Llama’s always near, even if she’s not right here.”

The other books in the series include Llama Llama Misses Mama, which focuses on the first day of school, Llama Llama Home with Mama, which describes a sick day where Mama also comes down with the flu, Llama Llama Mad at Mama, which brilliantly describes a long day of shopping, and Llama Llama Holiday Drama, which highlights the chaos of the holiday season.  All of the books in this series follow a similar pattern.  Llama Llama learns lessons in patience, independence, and most importantly, unconditional love from his no-nonsense mama.  There’s plenty of kissing and cuddling, but there’s also plenty of firm discipline.  Mama Llama seems to be holding down the fort alone; there is no evidence of a papa llama and Llama Llama appears to be an only child. 

Perhaps it is because I can appreciate Mama’s parenting style— it certainly reminds me of my own— that I enjoy the series as much as Oliver.  Additionally, the rhyming, which permeates the books, makes for fun reading, as do charming phrases such as “llama drama” which are often repeated.  I love that the books teach Oliver empathy.  In one notable scene from Llama Llama Misses Mama, little Llama cries at the lunch table on his first day of school.  My son is always touched by Llama’s tears, gasping when we get to the page and attempting to offer little Llama his own pacifier.  These books are in heavy rotation at our house and are certainly worth a look.        

Definitely something we'll be checking out with Isabel.

Love. Annie

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Playing with art

Dear Annie -- and Denise!

That was a lovely post from Denise about art books.  When our girls were little we used to take them to the National Gallery here in D.C.  We'd have the same challenges with trying to interest them in the art, although they loved the buildings.  They also loved the opportunity to pick out postcards: more interesting than the real things.  The National Gallery eventually became known in our family as The Postcard Museum.  Our many purchases decorated their rooms and the kitchen at about knee-level for many years, so I feel we gave them an art education that way.

One of the art books I'm most fond of for older kids (maybe 7 or 8 and up) is
Art Fraud Detective
by Anna Nilsen.  It's basically a spot-the-differences book with a loose plot.  A fictional museum has just learned that most of its classic (real) paintings have been replaced by forgeries, and it's up to the reader to detect them.  Most of the book is split pages: on the top are the paintings that are in the museum -- 30 fakes and 4 real ones.  And on the bottom of the pages are the real paintings before the thefts.  One flips pages until you have the two versions together, then you look to see if any details have been changed.  These forgers also leave a rubber stamp-like "signature" on the fakes, so it's fairly easy to spot those little marks, but finding the alterations in the pictures is much harder.  Most of the paintings are from the National Gallery in London -- artists include Botticelli, Holbein, DaVinci, Monet, Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Europeans.  Nilsen went on to do two more: Art Auction Mystery, also a collection of mostly-European painters over the last three or four centuries, and The Great Art Scandal (now out of print), which is more modern: Monet to Warhol.

Earlier this week, a woman came into the store looking for coloring books "with information in them."  It turned out that she's a volunteer in an Alzheimer's facility and some of the residents enjoy coloring.  But she didn't want pictures which seemed infantilizing.  We went through a number of options before we ended up with great series of coloring books about famous artists from Prestel Publishing.   (The link gives you a chance to flip through a few pages.)  These slightly over-size books give a page or two of background on the artist, then offer both fill-in-the-colors pictures, and partial pictures with prompts for the reader to draw the rest. 

The Matisse book has four pages with big solid blocks of color:
Matisse wanted to represent things using shapes which were as simple as possible.  That is why, one day, he had the idea of using scissors and glue.  He cut patterns and shapes out of colored paper.  You can try it too.  You have some scissors and glue, don't you?  You might like to add to Matisse's cut-out patterns which you can see in this book.
Another two-page spread shows "The Dance" in color on the left -- five naked dancing women -- and on the right a line drawing of the same painting: "What colors would you like to use to complete these dancers?"  A page in the Vermeer book shows part of "Soldier with a Laughing Girl" and asks, "What is the woman laughing about?  What is the man telling her?"

One of the things that makes this series so much fun is that despite the examples I've just used, many of the artists are ones which kids aren't likely to meet in basic art classes.  Artists include Chagall, Miro, Hopper, Klimt, Kandinsky, Klee, Warhol and more.  They're very kid-friendly -- and good for grown-ups too.



Monday, January 9, 2012

Guest blogger: Art Immersion -- Books as Museums

Dear Aunt Debbie,
It's portfolio time again!  This morning, I collected two class sets of writing portfolios from my juniors and seniors, and will be putting my nose to the grindstone in grading and commenting on them for the next couple of weeks.  Which means, of course, that it's time for some excellent guest bloggers.

First up is our regular guest Denise, who has written here before about picture books that raise social awareness and picture books that capture the essence of summer.  Here she is:
One of the first museums my husband and I took our daughter Jacinta to was the Museu Picasso in Barcelona. It was on a narrow, cobbled, pedestrian street in a Gothic-style brick building with a courtyard; we were fortunate to have come on the one free day of the week, and the line was nowhere as long as the line to Target-free Fridays at the MOMA in Manhattan.

Jacinta was a little over two, so she wasn’t as excited as we were to enter this sacred place. She did look intently and excitedly at a few paintings in the first parlor and made her parents proud by answering questions like, what colors do you see? And what shape is this? After looking at a wall of work, she wiggled out of her dad’s arms and started roaming around, pushing through people’s knees and bumping into their bags. At this point, Sean and I took turns watching her and looking at the decades of work on display.

This was her first immersion in art history, and to remember it, we bought a souvenir: a board book called Painting with Picasso by Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober. In this book, lyrical, rhyming lines on one side complement a painting on the other side. On the first page: “An artist paints people / in all different places, / and captures the feelings / that show in their faces.” The painting beside this is “Interior with a Girl Drawing." Most of the other nine paintings include young children; each page is saturated with vibrant colors. It is so much easier to appreciate each individual painting when it sits between your hands. And there is an entire series of books like this one that showcase other artists such as Van Gogh and Matisse; the series is called Mini Masters and is published by Chronicle.

It’s been over two years since our trip to Barcelona, and now that we have a two-year old boy, Emerson, visiting a museum has become much more challenging and arduous. We have been to the Cloisters in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Museum, but during these visits, we didn’t really engage with the art work; we did family activities and briefly glanced at some works that caught our eyes. But I’ve realized that we don’t need to visit museums to appreciate art; we can adopt our own artists and fills our shelves and walls with art. And that was my mission this Christmas, to have a renaissance of art appreciation at home.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art publishes some of the most amazing books that expose children to centuries of art. The books I (aka Santa) bought are:

My First ABC, a board book with vibrant paintings spanning continents and centuries; each page zooms in on an object beginning with a particular letter. One of my favorites is: H h Hair; the subsequent painting focuses on the profiles of an Egyptian man and woman in a painting from Tomb of Ipuy, ca. 1279-1213 BC.

Museum Shapes: each section begins, What shape is… and is followed by a painting that focuses on that particular shape; on the next page, the shape, the word, and other excerpts from visual art. What’s unique about this book is that it includes architecture and textiles in addition to paintings.

Can You Find It? is a search and discover book that includes nineteen paintings and a list of details to find in each. The art work is stunningly detailed and finding the individual items is difficult; Jacinta is much better and finding things than I am – I really have to strain my eyes. One we looked at together is a painting of The Feast of Sada from Shahnama by Firdausi. The text beside it states: “In this painting of an outdoor feast, can you find: 1 box, 4 birds, 1 bear throwing a rock… 4 bottles, and 6 beards.” I love how poetic the list is. I also love how there is something in each work of art for both my daughter and son to recognize and appreciate.

The final book is not published by the Met. It is an instructional book:
I Love to Draw!
by Jennifer Lipsey. It breaks down how to draw trees and dogs and cars in such a simple way that even I can draw these things.       

As the winter ensues and encourages us to stay in our living room, we will have many works of art to enjoy at our own leisure, without having to abide by museum rules. The kids can touch the pages, but not bend them, then march around and sing and scat while still being immersed in art.

Inspiring ideas!
Love, Annie

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Dear Annie,

A friend's daughter enrolled in my girls' school in 7th grade and ended up hanging with Lizzie and her group of friends.  When my friend mentioned Anne's new crowd to a teacher, the teacher replied, "That's good -- they're all very kind."  The choice of words, although true, struck me as an unusual choice.  In the world of school social interaction, though, it was high praise indeed.

, by R.J. Palacio, extends the spectrum of kindness and cruelty in the story of a fifth grader attending school for the first time.  It's not a story about middle school mean girls, but it's about wanting more kindness from strangers than one often gets.
I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.  I mean, sure, I do ordinary things.  I eat ice cream.  I ride my bike.  I play ball.  I have an XBox.  Stuff like that makes me ordinary.  I guess.  And I feel ordinary.  Inside.  But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.  I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go....
   My name is August, by the way.  I won't describe what I look like.  Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
Auggie was born with massive facial deformities, has gone through 27 surgeries, and still looks far from normal.  The description of his face comes out in small details throughout the book, building a full picture of his looks and his personality in parallel.  He's a great kid: very brave, very vulnerable, very kid-like.  Very observant:
   She had written her name, Ms. Petosa, on the chalkboard.  "Everybody find a seat, please.  Come in," she said to a couple of kids who had just come in the room.  "There's a seat there, and right there."
   She hadn't noticed me yet.
   "Now, the first thing I want everyone to do is stop talking and . . . "
   She noticed me.
   ". . . put your backpacks down and quiet down."
   She had only hesitated for a millionth of a second, but I could tell the moment she saw me.  Like I said: I'm used to it by now.
The book is due to be published next month, but I'm jumping the gun because it keeps kicking around in my thoughts.  It's narrated by Auggie and a number of other characters, including his fiercely loving but conflicted older sister, two of her friends, and other fifth graders.  One understands the allure of Halloween -- masks! anonymity! -- and the pain of being a freak among one's peers.  Some of the kids set a "rule" that anyone who touches Auggie will end up with "The Plague" if they don't wash their hands within 30 seconds.  A couple of kids befriend him, and they're the last to hear about it.  Other attempts at organized ostracism follow.

What makes Wonder work so well is that there are several characters whose actions range from simply treating Auggie as a regular kid, to confronting seriously hostile behavior.  Yet none of the good people is perfect.  Auggie's first true friend betrays him early on and has to win his way back.  His sister doesn't tell anyone in her new school about her brother -- she wants to savor an identity free of him.  When Auggie and Jack are getting along, they're far from model students and get scolded for acting up.  Fifth grade boys get into fights.  They cry.  The reader gets wrapped up in Auggie's slog through the school year, wanting him to have an easier time, being impressed with how he's growing up.  Then there's a horrifying incident with strangers which forces the entire school population to examine their feelings about the weird kid.

The ending is satisfying and impossible to get through dry-eyed.  The glow one feels at the end has to do with being glad that ordinary people act with courage and kindness.  And it doesn't even feel far-fetched.



Saturday, January 7, 2012

Scary pictures

Dear Aunt Debbie,

The pictures of the Child's Play book section make me wish we were in DC more often.  What a great collection you've set up there!  I look forward to hearing about the expansion.

I'm posting late tonight because I've been up talking with my cousin, your daughter, Lizzie, who's visiting this weekend.  We had a lovely evening, starting out, of course, with reading the girls some of the new books you sent along with Lizzie.  I love the tiny paperback versions of the Robert Munsch books Purple, Green, and Yellow and Something Good.  (These links appear to be to normal-sized versions -- are both sizes available?)

Both books are trademark Munsch from the period where he was developing his storytelling skills with classes of preschoolers: lots of repetition and wild plot devices, pitched at a perfect kids' level.  In Purple, Green, and Yellow, Brigid badgers her mother for increasingly awesome colored markers, until she gets a whole bunch of "super-indelible-never-come-off-till-you're-dead-and-maybe-even-later coloring markers."  Then, of course, she draws all over herself, and when the doctor comes to try to fix her up, she ends up turning invisible.  But that's not the end of the story....  I didn't know Something Good before tonight: the story of a father who takes his kids to the supermarket, where his daughter Tyya complains that he never buys them "something good."  She piles a shopping cart with all kinds of sugar ("three hundred chocolate bars"), and her father gets so frustrated that he tells her to stand still and not move.  This results in Tyya being mistaken for a doll, and having a price tag applied to her nose.  Robert Munsch is awesome -- thank you!

A week ago, we had a reader question from Nelly about finding books with scary pictures: "like wolf (or fox) eating pigs (or seven kids or Red Riding hood or birds in Chicken Little) or being pictured with a fat stomach."  I've been looking through the books we have at home with this in mind, and am not coming up with much, though I feel like these are images I've seen. 

In The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Collection, there are a couple of fairly scary illustrations of foxes and wolves going after other animals.  Here's the fox in "The Little Red Hen," bursting in the door to catch the rooster and mouse:

I thought that the wolf in Peter and the Wolf might have a fat belly after eating the duck, but no, not really.  I have a dim memory of a wonderful Harriet Pincus-illustrated Little Red Riding Hood in which the hunter fills the wolf's belly with stones after taking Little Red and her grandmother out, and then sews him back up -- an image both gruesome and domestic.  It's an interesting question: which illustrators give that extra physical detail, and which don't?

Love, Annie

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year makeover

Dear Annie,

Happy New Year to you and to all.

I love your daughters' often very personal reactions to the books you read.  Isabel pointing out that she puts on a diaper while the members of the orchestra in The Philharmonic Gets Dressed are struggling into their girdles and garters is so cheering.

I had a lovely discussion of The Philharmonic about two months ago when author Mo Willems dropped in at our store.  He signed a number of books and chatted for a bit.  On his way out he picked up Karla Kuskin's book and effused over it.  He opened it more  or less randomly -- I think this was the page:

"He's so brave," Willems said.  "I wish I had the courage to draw like that."  The reference was to illustrator Marc Simont, but I didn't understand the bravery.  Drawing adults in underwear in a kids' book?  No, not that.  Willems' finger drummed on the woman in the lower left putting on her bra, then on the legs stepping into red underwear on the upper right.  The courageous act was to cut these people's bodies off: to draw just half a person going off the edge of the page. Willems was expressing his admiration as an artist for Simont's originality.  A lovely moment.

Christmas is over, but life remains busy in the book and toy business.  For the last two days, we've closed the store and had it freshly carpeted, and contractors have knocked a ten foot-wide opening in one wall where we're going to expand into a space next door.  The book section won't be moving to the new space, but we will get more room to display what we have.   Carpeting in a store loaded with heavy shelves turns out to be a major adventure.  Everything must go while old ratty carpet gets pulled up and the new stuff goes down.

Here's a photo of the book section from about six months ago, but it looked basically like this yesterday morning:
One can't quite appreciate the many imperfections of the green carpeting, but it was definitely ready to go.  An incredibly nice work crew came in, took lots of photos with an iPhone, then started sliding all those shelves to the front of the store.  See that white fixture partly covered by the Wimpy Kid's hand?  Fifteen minutes later, it was almost all that was left, and the guy in the blue shirt is sliding it out of there:
They pulled up the rug, prepped the floor, covered it with thick blue glue, and -- poof! -- by 2 in the afternoon the book section was beautifully carpeted, still empty, and appearing huuuge.  The guys brought all the fixtures back, checking the placement against the iPhone pictures and my somewhat spatially challenged memory (no, I think it was more to the left...).  The store was carpeted in four stages, and the following three stages involved fixtures and lots of stuff being moved into the book section while sections of floor closer to the front of the store were worked on.

Today was spent cleaning shelves, scraping off years' accumulation of scotch tape for signs, and reorganizing a bit. There's more to be done, and I look forward to an island of Star Wars lightsabers and action figures returning to its non-book section home: right now it's parked directly in front of the hardcover picture books.  One of the nice things about this sort of disruption is looking at the space in new ways, and reminding myself of books that have been quietly hiding in corners (and in a few cases, have fallen behind shelves).  Getting re-acquainted with the neighborhood.

I'm looking forward to the expansion, which will probably get in gear a few weeks from now.  Will keep you posted.



Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas roundup

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Welcome back!  It's been a good week off, complete with travel, feasting, family, and fevers (all are well again), and though we took a break from blogging, of course we didn't take a break from reading.  A number of new good books have entered our lives, and I thought I'd mention a few tonight.

As promised, you sent us Inga Moore's A House in the Woods.  The girls are big fans, and so am I -- such sweetness, without being cloying, and such depth to her pictures!  It was accompanied by a picture book about Anna Hibiscus, whose chapter books we've extolled here and here.  In Anna Hibiscus' Song, Anna Hibiscus finds herself extremely happy one day, and wants to figure out what to do with her happiness.  She asks the various members of her family what they do when they're happy, and gets a variety of responses: they are very quiet, they work, they dance, they whisper.   Even in this short book, you're introduced to her warm presiding grandparents, her piles of hard-working, laughing aunties and uncles, and her cousins with all their glorious names -- Benz, Chocolate, Angel -- as well as her black African father and white Canadian mother.  At the end, Anna Hibiscus realizes that her own greatest happiness lies in singing.  It's a joyful, loving book.

I bought Isabel two books about classical music which you wrote about a while ago: Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed.  Huge hits, both of them -- we've pretty much been reading them nonstop since Christmas morning.  There is something so fabulously child-logical about The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, in particular: all the tiny details of coats and homes and transportation, all the terrific illustrations of lower and upper halves of musicians struggling into complicated underwear or examining the hole in a sock.  For Isabel, who likes to narrate her daily experience anyway, this book is a perfect fit.  When we read about the musicians drying off, she talks about her own towel.  On the next page, she responds to the different types of underwear the musicians put on: "And I wear a diaper."

Just before Christmas, our lovely cousin Ona sent each girl a book with an accompanying stuffed animal, and these two are great hits as well.  For Eleanor: Kevin Henkes's Chrysanthemum.  This is another mouse-girl/adjusting to school book from Henkes, though Chrysanthemum is far less of a scene-stealer than Lilly and her purple plastic purse.  She's just a sweet kid with a sweet family, who has always loved her name, until she enters school and a group of mean girls begin to tease her about it (it's too long, she's named after a flower, etc.).  Chrysanthemum wilts, despite the tender, nerdy comfort of her parents (her dad is shown in a lab coat and glasses, reading "The Inner Mouse, Vol. 1: Childhood Anxiety").  It's only the intervention of the magical, extremely pregnant music teacher, Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle, that makes everything right again.  I kind of like Chrysanthemum's retiring nature here -- she feels like a normal kid responding to bullying, rather than a particularly precocious one.

For Isabel, Ona sent The Gingerbread Girl, written and illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst.  It begins with a brief recap of the story of the Gingerbread Boy running off and being eaten by a fox when he tried to escape the people chasing and trying to eat him.  This is helpful if you're reading to kids, like mine, who don't know the original tale.  Ernst ends the first page: "This is the story of his younger, wiser sister."   The lonely old man and woman decide to make a gingerbread girl this time around because she'll be sweeter and better-behaved than the original Gingerbread Boy.  Of course, she isn't, and takes off running as soon as the oven door is cracked open.  Her story is much like the original: she runs past lots of people and animals who want to eat her, and follow along.  My favorite is the calf who turns from its mother's udder to moo, "Mama, I want a cookie to go with my milk!"  There's a lot of singing: the Gingerbread Girl tosses out rhymes to each group she passes, ending each with her refrain:

I'll run and I'll run
With a leap and a twirl.
You can't catch me,
I'm the Gingerbread GIRL!

She meets the fox who ate her brother, climbs on his back to cross the river -- and then lassos his mouth with a licorice whip from her hairdo and rides him back to shore, where she leads everyone who's been wanting to eat her back to her parents' place and bakes them all gingerbread to eat (presumably non-sentient).

There's a lesson of female empowerment here, in the Gingerbread Girl's rejection of her parents' expectations and, especially, of the fox's.  I have to admit, while I like the book a lot, and the girls adore it, I find the scene with the fox a little creepy in a sexual predator way:

"Ooooh, the water is so deep, move to my back!" he insisted, thinking this cute cookie was even dumber than her brother.  Anyone could tell by looking at her that she was an airhead.  The Gingerbread Girl did as she was told.  "That's a good little girl," the fox said with a snicker.  "Oh my, the water is deep, now move to my head!"

On the next page, after she lassos him "with the expertise of a ranch hand," the Gingerbread Girl whispers into the fox's ear: "You're right....I am good."  It's an interesting use of language, and makes me wonder about the message it's sending in terms of possible future threats.  The Gingerbread Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Finally, I'll mention the chapter book my father-in-law bought for Eleanor, which I'm sure I'll blog about at greater length once we've finished it: Thomas and the Dragon Queen, by Shutta Crum.  So far (we're about halfway), it's an appealing medieval-ish fantasy.  Thomas is a twelve-year old from a leather-worker's family who aspires to be a knight.  Improbably, in a kingdom besieged at its borders and in need of fighting men, he becomes one, and is deputized by the king to ride off in search of the very nice Princess Eleanor (you can see one reason we like this book), who has been kidnapped by the ancient dragon queen, Bridgoltha.  What will happen?  Tune in soon....

Love, Annie